The Other Apostle to India: Of Major Significance to People of Konkan & Kanara Coasts
The early history of the Christian Church in the eastern hemisphere is not as well researched and documented as that of the Christian Church of the West. For practical reasons and given the era during which the church was founded, there are numerous publications on the works, writings, and travels of the apostles and other disciples in Israel, around the Mediterranean Sea, and in the “Roman World.” As a result of the paucity of printed information in earlier times, little was known about the geography of the East – beyond Byzantium (Western Turkey). For example, until Portugal’s Vasco da Gama discovered the direct sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to India in 1498, the Indian Ocean was believed to be a land-locked lake.
Even modern books, such as History of the Christian Church of the East, are fraught with misinformation because much of the original work dates to the “Period of Confusion” in the first few centuries of CE. At best, India was identified as a nebulous place that lay “in the vicinity of the Indus River.” The poorly informed vaguely referred to India as being located “East of Ethiopia” or “on the other side of Africa.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, the much-touted, mythical Christian leader, Prester John, was believed to be living in regions as far-ranging as Western China, India, the Middle East, and South Africa.
Three Apostles of Christ destined for the East:
After Pentecost, and in keeping with Jesus’ instructions, the Apostles assembled to achieve one important purpose: to determine how to spread the teachings of Jesus, and the message of the Messiah, especially to the Jews. A few discoursed in the temple in Jerusalem and surrounding areas, but they were increasingly under pressure from the Temple authorities to cease any preaching. Some promoted the Good News of Jesus Christ in Galilee, while others ventured beyond Israel into Syria and Jordan. The Jews who had settled within the Roman Empire and spoke Greek (Hellenized / Grecian Jews) were more receptive to the Christian message of the Messiah than were the Jews who lived in Jerusalem and spoke Hebrew / Aramaic (Hebraic Jews); who were influenced by the temple hierarchy (Pharisees and Sadducees) and the Roman military authorities.
To focus their evangelization, the apostles identified the different regions of the known world and paid special attention to Roman territories and the size of the Jewish residents within each area. The Roman custom of casting lots was used to determine the locale to which each disciple was assigned. It was decided that in the best interest of the newly-established religion, the three senior apostles (Peter, James, and John) should be home-based in Jerusalem; and most others were destined for Roman territories around the Mediterranean Sea. The issue of sending disciples to regions outside the Roman Empire, however, presented a thorny dilemma. This presentation will concentrate on the territory which lay in Asia to the East of the Roman Empire.
Historical records suggest that the apostle Bartholomew drew the lot which directed him to serve around the Indus River; while Thomas was assigned to Parthia (current Iran), and Mathew was commissioned to serve in Egypt and Ethiopia. Other sources claim that Thomas’ “luck-of-the-draw” was to bring Christianity to India. However, all sources agree that the intrepid Thomas rebelled at the idea of being placed in a strange land, populated by people who spoke a variety of peculiar languages. There was merit to Thomas’ concerns about undertaking the dangerous journey to Parthia and India. Throughout history, wars had been waged between the near- east (Hittites in Turkey) and the Mid-west (Iran and Iraq) with the sole purpose of controlling the Fertile Crescent.
Later wars involved Egypt and Greece against Middle Eastern countries to control trade along the Silk Road. Under Alexander the Great, Greek rule was established over the region in 324 BCE; which lasted into Parthian (247 BCE- 224 CE) followed by Sassanid (224-651) rule in Persia, where Farsi was the oral language, and Avasta served as the liturgical script for their religion – Zoroastrianism. In 30 CE, the East (east of Byzantium) was a collection of heterogeneous minorities – Greeks, Armenians, Babylonians, Arabs, Phoenicians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Canaanites, Jews, Hittites, Persians, and Romans. Each of these major groups had its own divisions and dialects.
Rather than have to deal with an internal upheaval, the senior apostles – Peter, John, and James – reached a compromise: Didymus would take the Word east of the Roman Empire but closer to home. Perhaps because of divine inspiration, Thomas agreed to go to Edessa (Urfa in south-east Turkey), the capital of Osroene. For Thomas, Edessa was preferable as it would take him only a few days to walk to Edessa; and in case of local skirmish, he could rush back to safe ground in Antioch. Besides, the people spoke Aramaic and wrote in Syriac / Suryani script (equivalent to Latin in Europe, Avasta in Parthia, and Sanskrit in India). The Bible was written in Aramaic in the Syriac script.
Didymus Thomas, Nathanael Bartholomew and Jude Thaddeus are the three apostles credited with laying the seeds of the Christian church east of the Roman Empire — Byzantium. The three are relatively unknown, albeit Jude (brother of James the Less, and son of Alphaeus, who was the brother of Joseph the carpenter) was the first cousin of Jesus. There is no historical record of Jude visiting India, but he has a large and devout following in that country. Indian Christians, like those the world over, consider him the go-to patron saint of “Lost Causes, Hopeless and Desperate Situations.”
Byzantines and Romans were unfamiliar with the geography of the East, except for being able to recognize the names of a few major empires. The area was notable for the overland Silk Road and the many cities, states, and empires that thrived financially as a result of tolls collected from traders along the road. The starting point of the Silk Trade route was in Western China and extended to Egypt and to the Mediterranean Sea. Long-distance trade – over land or sea – not only facilitated commerce, it also fostered the exchange of thoughts, advances in science and language, and exposure to various religions (Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam), and their leaders. In the 16th century, goods were transported by ship via the newly-opened sea lanes to southern Europe. This mode of transportation was less expensive, safer, and quicker than using camel caravans.
In the 1st century, Aksum in Northern Ethiopia / Eretria was a city of great importance along the Red Sea. The island of Socotra is located at the mouth of the Red Sea just beyond Aden, Yemen and was renowned for the apostolic churches that Thomas established there. It is interesting to note that prior to Islamization, all men in Socotra were named Thomas, and the women were called Mary. The island now is part of Yemen and a major producer of aloe and myrrh. Apostles and monks were not the only ones who deserve credit for the exchange of religious ideas to distant places; merchants, sailors, and businessmen also promoted the transmission of religious beliefs.
Later Syriac replaced the use of Greek to document extensive religious and non-religious texts in the Mideast into the 8th century when it was replaced by Arabic. Up until the late 2nd century, Antioch in Syria/Turkey was the Christian centre of the East and the third largest seaport of the Mediterranean Sea, after Rome and Alexandria. From the late 2nd to the 12th century, Edessa was the centre of the Christian Church of the East. During the Middle Ages, Syriac served as the intermediary text between Greek writings and Arabic translations.
Long before the Portuguese explorers and missionaries landed in India in the 1500s, Thomas, an Apostle of Jesus, widely known as the Doubting Thomas, introduced Christianity to India in 52 CE. According to tradition, the Apostle established seven churches in the current states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in southern India; he was martyred and buried in the year 72 CE at Mylapore. The apostle’s dedicated work and extensive travel to propagate the faith are well-known, and his followers – known as Syro-Malabar Christians — are an important part of the Malayali community of Kerala and elsewhere. The work of Apostle Thomas in India had been extensively researched and documented by scholars in the Malayali community of Kerala; who have written volumes about his work in Southern India, (Tamilakam) and the intriguing information will not be repeated here. Here are some less well-known facts about Didymus’ life prior to his arrival in India and events that occurred after his martyrdom. Yet, first, we will talk about the other less-known apostle to India.
Nathanael Bartholomew: The Other Apostle who came to India:
It is not widely known, even among Indians, that a second apostle — St. Bartholomew, more correctly called Nathanael bar (son of) Tolmai or Talmai — came to India. Many consider him to be a twin brother of the Apostle Philip. There are two historical sources that report that in the 2nd century, St. Pantaenus of Alexandria, Egypt, visited India with a specific purpose: to meet Coptic Christians in the town of Kalyan / Calliana, located north of Mumbai on the west coast of India. In Kalyan, the Egyptian found a copy of St. Matthew’s Gospel, which had been hand-written in Hebrew by the evangelist himself. The priceless and irreplaceable text had been left behind by St. Bartholomew. St. Pantaenus retrieved this precious book and brought it back with him to Egypt. Kalyan was one of the five busiest ports on India’s west coast; its strategic position provided it with a sea-lane connection to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and it was home to a Jewish colony, and later to a community of Coptic and Nestorian Christians.
Documented reports of Bartholomew’s preaching in Ethiopia makes it likely that the apostle travelled from Jerusalem to the well-known Nabatean town of Petra, a major caravan centre for trade from India to Alexandria (Egypt), Damascus (Syria) and ports on Lebanon’s coast. The apostle probably passed through the port of Al Aqaba and the Gulf of Aqaba. After spending time in Ethiopia and perhaps even the Christianized archipelago islands like Socotra off Yemen, the apostle sailed to India on one of the Arab dhows.
In 55 CE, (23 years after the resurrection of Jesus and three years after Thomas arrived in Kerala), Bartholomew reached Kalyan on India’s west coast during the Satavahana rule of Aristakarman (37–62); and Pulumayi, his brother, was Viceroy of the region. Other sources state that Bartholomew landed in Kallianpur in Tulu Nadu (Udupi district). Until the year 62 CE, he preached to the Jewish trading communities that had settled along the Canara and Konkan coasts in Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. Besides the Jewish community, the apostle converted people who belonged to various castes like Brahmins in Goa and Kshatriyas in Sopara, the capital of Aparanta. According to historian Julian Fernandes, Christian communities were established in coastal Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra (Sindhudurg, Ratnagiri, Raigad, Mumbai, Kalyan, and Thane). Some Indian sources place the centre of St. Bartholomew’s evangelizing efforts in Kalyan, located near Thana and north of Bombay / Mumbai.
Bartholomew also established churches in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Parthia (Iran), Lycaonia (Turkey), and Armenia. The Armenians claim that Christianity was brought to them by Apostles Bartholomew and Jude, who are the patron saints of the Armenian Church. According to that church’s followers, Bartholomew was martyred in Albanopolis, Armenia. Others claim that Bartholomew was martyred in India in the year 62. They allude to historical data which identifies the Indian kings who were associated with the apostle’s martyrdom and ruled in India at the time he was martyred.
Didymus Thomas, the well-known Apostle to India:
What Thomas achieved in spreading the teachings of Christ was nothing short of miraculous. From Edessa, Syria, which later became the capital of the “Church of the East,” Thomas in 31 CE took the word of Jesus east – way east!!! In the short span of two decades, he established Christian communities — “Apostolic Churches” — in Turkey, Assyria, Medes, Chaldea, Persia, and Iran, Babylonia (Iraq), Hyrcania (Turkmenistan), Bactria (Oxus Valley), Margian (Central Asia), Afghanistan, Pakistan, western China, Mongolia, Tibet, Punjab and northwest India, Socotra Island and Yemen, South India and Sri Lanka. According to Babylonian oral tradition, the apostle met–up with the Magi, who had previously seen the “Star,” which directed them to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. Tradition has it that St. Thomas was an exceptional miracle worker, especially in curing the sick. Traders (especially from the East) would urge him to accompany them to their own land to heal their incurably sick or dying relatives and in return, they promised him protection and help.
In Afghanistan, Thomas served in the court of King Gondophares (Indo-Parthian), who ruled Eastern Iran – Afghanistan (21-51) from his capital at Taxilla. Marco Polo encountered a few of the surviving Christians in western China in the 13th century. These active communities, extending to northwest India, existed until the 11th or 12th century under Mongol rule. Archaeological digs conducted in Punjab and the Gilgit-Baltistan region along the Silk Road discovered Christian artefacts such as “The Taxila Cross.” The lack of knowledge of the geography of Asia stymied the Roman Church from appreciating the enormity of the work St. Thomas successfully carried out in that region.
The last 20 years of the apostle’s life were spent in Southern India and Sri Lanka. He landed in India at the port of Muziriz, Kodungalloor, Maliankara in 50 AD. According to Nasrani tradition, Thomas landed at Cannanore (village 5 km away) in 52 and spread the Word in Tamilakam territory (Kerala, Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka), mainly to communities located along the Periyar River. He spent 16 years in Kerala and Northern Ceylon from 52 to 68. Later, he went to Tamil Nadu, where he was martyred with a lance on July 3, 72 in Mylapore. The tomb is located in San Thome Basilica, which was built on the site of his martyrdom.
After his death and over time, the communities he had converted to Christianity, though part of the Church of the East, were on the decline. In 232, a Syrian merchant named Khabin respectfully transported the saint’s remains (bones) to Edessa / Urhai / Urfa / Sanliurfa. The city of Edessa, from where Thomas had set out on his journey to the East, was the site of a new basilica, which was built in 394 and became the principal headquarters of the Church of the East. However, in 1144, Edessa was conquered by the Turks, who were led into battle by Zengids, and destroyed the tomb. Some of the saint’s remains were divided between various churches in the Greek islands (Chios and Patmos); a portion of the remains was preserved and venerated in Mosul (Nineveh) in Iraq, as well as in a cathedral in the town of Ortona on the east/ Adriatic coast of Italy (on the same latitude as Rome on the west coast).
Christian Church of the East:
Until the 16th century, the Indian church was part of the Eastern Orthodox Church based in Asia, as opposed to the Western Roman Church, which was headed by the Bishop in Rome, and the African Coptic Church, which was led by the Bishop of Alexandria. Initially, the seat of the Eastern Church was located in Antioch; later, it moved to Edessa, and finally to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. With the rise of the Parthians (247 BCE- 224 CE) and Sassanid (224-651) in Iran, the political/military capital of the Middle East moved to Ctesiphon. A schism (theological disagreement) began in the 5th century between Nestorius (c 381-451) the Bishop of Constantinople (428-432) and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. At issue was the “Christology Controversy” which dealt with the nature of Christ, as well as the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God and man. The Sassanid, as military rivals of the Romans/ Byzantium, promoted the Eastern Orthodox Nestorians rather than the Latin Rite Roman Catholics, and the church’s Catholicos seat shifted to Ctesiphon.
In the 5th century, the Church of the East became entirely Nestorian in the split of the Church in Constantinople with Rome, Alexandria (Coptic), and the Greek Church. The religions of the Sasanian Empire were Zoroastrian / Parsee and Nestorian. The Nestorian church had 40 bishoprics under the Catholicos at the Sassanid capital at Ctesiphon. These bishoprics were distributed far and wide including parts in India, Ceylon, Herat and Kabul in Afghanistan, and Patna in Bihar. The Bishopric seat of the Eastern Church shifted to the jurisdiction of the Persepolis’ bishops in Persia / Iran; and in the 8th century with changing Islamic rulers in the region, the seat moved to Baghdad; with communities scattered across Syria, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Armenia, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, and South India. Since the 9th century Islamization spread across the Mideast; consolidated their rule, and the minorities in the Arab world were decimated; the Nestorians along with other minorities suffered and bishops could not support and nurture the outlying communities.
In the 13th century, there were efforts at reintegration of the Roman See and Nestorians. The Christians in the Mideast who became reunited with Rome are called Chaldeans Christians / East Syriac Christians / The Church of the East. It does not appear this reconciliation reached India as there was no Latin Rite in India at that time. Today, the Syro-Malabar Christian groups in India after a period of being under the Sea at Baghdad are now in full communion with Rome’s pope and directed by local bishops. The various religious communities of the East Syriac Christians have preserved their cultural identity and religion by strict endogamy. Unfortunately, today there are less than five Bishoprics of the Eastern Christian Church in Asia, with most relocated with their congregation; who migrated to the West including America and Australia.
The Eastern or Oriental Catholic Church has 23 denominations, the largest being the Ukrainian Church; and the second largest is India’s St. Thomas Christian (Nazrani) denomination. The Oriental Catholic Church given its long history and culture has five Rites (scriptural languages akin to Sanskrit, Avasta, and Latin):
Coptic (Alexandria-Egypt; Ethiopia, Eritrea);
Aramaic (Armenia, Georgia);
Greek (Byzantine, Eastern Europe);
East Syriac (Chaldean-Mideast, India);
West Syriac (Maronite-Lebanon, India).
These various groups have been successful in maintaining their identity by adhering to their language, culture, history, religion, geographical isolation, limited travel, self-sufficient agrarian economy, and practice of endogamy.
In the 20th -21st century, the turmoil in various countries in the Mideast forced the Chaldean groups to migrate in sizable numbers to Europe, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, along with their respective bishops and Bishopric seats. In the new land, the new immigrants rub shoulders with and even marry those from other Catholic groups, including immigrants from Goa and Kerala. In March 2021, Pope Francis made an official visit to Iraq and visited several of these Chaldean churches in Ur, Mosul, and Baghdad, and their parishioners.
The Church in India before the arrival of the Portuguese:
In 345, Nestorian Christians from Syria, led by Thomas Cana, were fleeing persecution and found refuge in India; they formed the Knanaya (Southists / Tekkumbhagar), while the native Christian communities, who were converted by the apostle Thomas, are called the Northists / Vaddakkumbhagar and are the Nazranis of Kerala. These groups preserve their identity and culture with strict endogamy. In the 8th century, the Parses and Iranians of Persia came to and were assimilated into Gujarat, establishing several successful communities. The west coast of India, since time immemorial, continued to be a place where a mélange of races converged and were welcomed by the original inhabitants. After the arrival of the Iberians to Goa, in the 16th-17th century, there was a partial reconciliation between the Latin Rite Catholic Church and the Orthodox Christian churches in Kerala. Currently, the latter group comprises eight sections, including Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara, which are associated with Rome.
Large Nestorian communities were reported to exist throughout the Konkan and Canara coasts right up to the 14th century, nurtured by the Bishops and priests from Bagdad. However, during this period, the Nestorian community in the Mideast was being decimated by the Mongols (12th – 13th century) especially by Genghis Khan (1158-1227) and later Tamerlane (1336-1405). Beyond the 4th century, there is no other record of organized mass migration of Nestorians from the Mideast to any coastal town of India. Yet, it is very likely that Mideast Nestorians continued to arrive on India’s west coast as traders and to escape persecution and death as their homeland was undergoing turmoil and tyranny.
This may explain the presence of the Mideast genetic markers in people of the west coast of India. With the decline of Nestorians in the Mideast, one saw a decline of Indian communities that they nurtured, by providing bishops and priests. Nestorians spread from Gujarat to Kerala to Northern Ceylon; and included former Jews, Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus – belonging to all caste strata, including members of the GSB, Kannadiga Brahmins, and a branch of the Kadamba royal family (Jain). Communities reflected their caste structure and occupation, including those involved in maritime trade. In Goa, there appears to exist a large Nestorian community in Aldona in Bardez; and Velim and Colvale in Salcete at the time of colonization.
This article is aimed to interest Christians of the East to research this topic rather than be a definitive source of historical facts. Fortunately, some Indian scholars have stepped up to the plate, and the explosion of information technology has made a revisit of ancient history possible. A great lead in this effort has been provided by A.C. Perumalil, SJ (Apostles in India), George Mark Moraes (A History of Christianity in India 52-1542), Julian Fernandes (Apostolic Christianity in India), Mathias Mundadan (History of Christianity in India), among others. Other western texts include: Readings in World Christian History. Volume I: Earliest Christianity to 1453 by John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. The internet has several open-source articles on the work of the Apostles and the early Christian Church. The researchers join the ranks of ancient authors and authorities on the Church of the East such as Eusebius of Caesarea (early 4th century) and St. Jerome (late 4th century), who did not have an in-depth understanding of the geography of India and the nuances of the various cultural groups within the country.
Information on this interesting subject is still evolving, with many hitherto neglected aspects finally seeing the light of day. Sceptics have to accept the fact that history cannot be forever suppressed. The reports suggest that thanks to St. Bartholomew, Goa and towns along India’s west coast had a significant Christian population prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, and the Hindus in those areas were familiar with Christian thinking, philosophy and religion. Julian Fernandes has suggested that the Nazareth(s) among the East Indians, Goans, and Mangaloreans are descendants of the Nestorian- Nazarene community.
In my own case, as a son of Aldona, Goa, I have to recognize the fact that instead of being a Hindu convert, my ancestors may have converted from Nestorian to Latin Catholic. It is probable that many Aldona residents who migrated to Mangalore in the 16th -17th centuries were because of their Nestorian rather than Hindu practices. This historical background explains why some people might have migrated for religious reasons rather than the far more common causes of migration – socio-economic hardships, including the death of the breadwinner, famines and epidemics.
Thanks for reading this presentation. Please forward it to your relatives and friends and feel free to post it on Facebook or other bulletin boards.
About the Authors:
Philomena Lawrence & Gilbert Lawrence-USA
Co-authors: Insights into Colonial Goa (Published by Kindle and Amazon as e-book and paperback )
The e-book can be downloaded in India. The paperback is also available in the USA, UK, EU, and Australia.
Click available to buy on Amazon
Every time we go to Goa, It takes us back in time. That’s where our families come from. It is our homeland and our past. The more we know about our homeland, The more we appreciate and love it.